From an altitude of thirty thousand feet, it's hard to determine where the blue of the Pacific meets the blue of the sky. Consequently, my sense of direction had diminished greatly since leaving the military base at Oakland, more than twenty hours earlier. Not that I really cared which direction I was traveling, I knew the destination well enough, but the disorientation only added to the sick feeling in my gut.
It seemed the longer we were in the air, the more pale and silent the nearly three hundred GI's on their way to Vietnam became, as if a common virus had infected us simultaneously. No doubt, their thoughts, the real source of that sick feeling, were the same as mine. Would I ever see my wife, my parents, my home again? Would I come back with both arms and legs, or in a wheelchair, or worse, in a box?
Even conversations with the stewardesses were infrequent and short as we neared our destination. Not like when we first departed. Everyone firing his best lines as if he was on his way to some tropical paradise, for the hottest date of his life. In several ways, I likened the trip to an all night date between the three of them and three hundred of us. Strange, how we had gotten to know each other so well, in so short a time. They learned quickly whom to avoid in the aisle, when not to bend over and to turn off the smile at the appropriate time. We just as quickly learned their tolerance levels for ribald conversation and pushed our fantasies just short of their limits, when one of them paused for a few moments to talk.
While most of us had to content ourselves by undressing them with our eyes, as they walked down the aisle, a couple of the men did manage to spend some time in the aft compartment. That was I suppose, the girls' sleeping quarters.
Most likely, any man on board would have given a month's pay to spend time in that compartment with any of the three, at the beginning of the trip. Now, the lack of interest indicated they were starting to look like "the morning after," to most of the men. Their infatuation with us had come to an end also. Wrinkled uniforms, unshaved faces and the prevalent odor of men who had not showered recently, had greatly reduced our collective sex appeal.
My thoughts turned to the memory of Annie, my wife, waving to me from the terminal window. I recalled how I just wanted to get on the plane and go when I left Tulsa for Oakland, somehow thinking that the sooner I started, the sooner it would be finished. I let my own anger, fears and frustrations cause me to be short with her, as if it were her fault I had to leave. I have to realize she is just as afraid for our future as I am and more, she is going to have our baby while I am gone. How I wished I could hold her and tell her how much I love her.
Raw emotions had been full time partners of mine since the day I received my greeting from the president, which effectively shattered my world. We had a mortgage, car payments and assorted other bills that I had no idea how we could pay on a soldier's salary. Why me? I thought. I had a good job as an estimator and project manager for a large mechanical contractor. Why not take those guys who are shown on television, burning draft cards and demonstrating on campus? They're a worthless lot anyway. They should be here and guys like me who are willing to work to accomplish something should be home. Who am I kidding? Uncle Sam does not want guys like them to defend our country. We probably would not have a country if we had to depend on their kind.
I remembered thinking when drafted, I don't like it but I'll do my duty and when it's over I can hold my head up and be proud of our flag and myself. When I get home, I thought, I'll kick a lung out of any SOB I catch burning or spitting on our flag. If I get home! What chance does a PFC in an infantry unit have? They told us in training that our chances of being killed in a car wreck at home were greater than the chances of being killed in Vietnam. That may be, but cars do not shoot bullets or throw grenades, so don't tell me where I am going, beats driving.
Maybe I should not have been so quick to mouth off to my OCS review board, but when the colonel asked me if I would take a commission as an Infantry Lieutenant, I could not help it. He knew I had applied for the Engineers and it just seemed like another in a long list of disappointments, in the army. When I responded that I would rather go to Vietnam as an enlisted man than as an infantry officer, he did everything he could to accommodate me. So, here you are smart mouth, I reasoned. A straight-legged infantryman on his way to combat. Oh well! I think privates live longer than officers, at least I hope so.
The screech of rubber hitting the runway and the sudden jolt of contact, as the plane touched down, forced my attention back to the present. The apprehension among the troops that was so obvious a short time earlier, turned into cat-like curiosity as the plane rolled down the runway toward the terminal. Necks craned and men pulled against the restraining force of the seat belts, as they jockeyed for a vantage point to look out a window. Since I was in a window seat, I could see other planes, buildings and an assortment of military equipment as we rode by. Bien Hoa does not appear different from any other military base, I thought. I will just be glad to get off this plane, to stretch my legs and find a rest room.
A portable ramp was pulled up to the plane and as the door was opened, a large group of cheering soldiers came running out of a building toward us. "Short," was the first cry I heard when I stepped out of the plane. "We're going home" and other remarks like, "so long sucker" and "have a nice war" were shouted from the crowd of jubilant GI's, impatiently waiting to board the plane and head for the States. Their jeers made it seem as if I were the personal replacement each of them had been waiting for, so he could go home and forget Vietnam.
As I reached the bottom of the steps and moved into the chaotic mass of humanity, I heard a voice from the crowd shout, "Give me your wife's phone number and I'll call her when I get home, to let her know you made it." You sorry bastard, I mumbled to myself.
Suddenly, the sky opened up with a monsoon rain. Even the heavens are against me, I thought, as I ran for the terminal building. At least no one could see the tears running down my cheeks in the rain. I needed that restroom badly. I really felt sick to my stomach.
A Year To Kill © 1989
Other Content © 1999
by James F. McColloch